Monday Sep. 26, 2016

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The Undeniable Pressure of Existence

I saw the fox running by the side of the road
past the turned-away brick faces of the condominiums
past the Citco gas station with its line of cars and trucks
and he ran, limping, gaunt, matted dull haired
past Jim’s Pizza, past the Wash-O-Mat,
past the Thai Garden, his sides heaving like bellows
and he kept running to where the interstate
crossed the state road and he reached it and he ran on
under the underpass and beyond it past the perfect
rows of split-levels, their identical driveways
their brookless and forestless yards,
and from my moving car, I watched him,
helpless to do anything to help him, certain he was beyond
any aid, any desire to save him, and he ran loping on,
far out of his element, sick, panting, starving,
his eyes fixed on some point ahead of him,
some possible salvation
in all this hopelessness, that only he could see.

“The Undeniable Pressure of Existence” by Patricia Fargnoli from Duties of the Spirit. © Tupelo Press, 2005. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is the birthday of the composer George Gershwin, born Jacob Gershvin in Brooklyn, New York (1898). He was the middle child in a tight-knit family of recent Russian Jewish immigrants. When his father bought a piano for his brother Ira, George sat right down on the bench and started to play. At 15, he left school to work on Tin Pan Alley as a song plugger, a sort of house musician for the music companies. Gershwin had an ear for arrangement, and before long, he was writing his own songs. His first one earned him just $5, but soon he was turning out hits such as “Swanee,” which sold in the millions.

Encouraged by this early success, Gershwin partnered with his brother Ira and began composing full Broadway operas. The two produced popular musicals, including Funny Face (1927) and Strike Up the Band! (1930). At the age of 25, Gershwin premiered his “Rhapsody in Blue,” and later “An American in Paris,” which featured accompaniment written for taxi horns. These compositions became orchestral standards. In 1935, he composed his folk-opera, Porgy and Bess, which features such classic songs as “Summertime” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” In 1936, at the end of its original run in Washington, D.C., the cast successfully protested segregation at the National Theatre, leading to the venue’s first-ever integrated performance.

It’s the birthday of Thomas Stearns Eliot (books by this author), born in St. Louis, Missouri (1888). At the age of 27, he wrote “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1915), and at 34, wrote “The Waste Land” (1922). At the height of his career, when he was writing poetry, plays, and literary criticism, and serving as director of the British publisher Faber & Faber, he was the 20th century’s single most influential writer. He was dry and enigmatic, and he spoke very, very slowly. Yet, he loved the Marx Brothers and was said to harbor a weakness for squirting buttonholes and exploding cigars. Somebody once said to Eliot that most editors are failed writers. Eliot said: “Yes. So are most writers.”

On this day in 1957, 20 years after George Gershwin died, Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story opened at the Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway. It was not immediately successful. It only became famous when it was turned into a film in 1961 and won 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It’s based on the story of Romeo and Juliet, but it is set in the gang-ridden streets of New York.

During the weeks leading up to the opening of West Side Story, the news was full of stories of gang violence and racial confrontations. At the end of August, Strom Thurmond filibustered for more than 24 hours to try to prevent passage of the Voting Rights Act. The day before the show’s opening, federal troops forcibly integrated Little Rock High School.

In general, critics responded favorably to West Side Story, but all the major Tony Awards went instead to The Music Man, a bubbly, nostalgic musical about a small town in Iowa.

It’s the birthday of American novelist Jane Smiley (1948) (books by this author), who has been called “The Balzac of the American Midwest” for her explorations of farm life, family strife, and financial upheaval in novels like At Paradise Gate (1981), A Thousand Acres (1996), and Some Luck (2014).

Smiley was born in Los Angeles, California, but was raised in Webster Groves, a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri. Her parents divorced when she was two, and her mother worked as a journalist. She calls herself a “bit of an out-to-lunch child” and says, “I was always pretty good at school, but all I ever wanted was a horse.” Smiley rode horses regularly, and even fancied becoming a jockey, but when she reached 6-foot-2, she realized she was too tall to be a jockey and set her sights on writing instead.

Smiley went to Vassar College to appease her mother. She says: “She wanted me to be an intellectual. I was her eldest child, and she thought that being a writer was the best thing you could be.” After college, she lived on a Maoist commune in Connecticut and backpacked through Europe for a year. Her boyfriend carried her typewriter. When she came home, she worked in a teddy-bear factory in Iowa before being accepted into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. It was her fellow student, novelist Leonard Michaels, who suggested her pen name. Smiley had married and was using the name Jane Whiston. Michaels said nobody would remember that name and asked what her maiden name was. When she said, “Smiley,” he answered, “That’s the one. People will remember that.”

She describes her first three novels, Barn Blind (1980), At Paradise Gate (1981), and Duplicate Keys (1984), as “practice.” She went on to write a murder mystery, a medieval epic (The Greenlanders, 1988), and a college satire (Moo, 1995). She’s been compared to Charles Dickens, but considers herself mainly a comic writer, saying “Somehow, after Moo, I lost my investment in sobriety as a literary tone. And I became lively and satiric.”

Smiley won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1992 for her novel A Thousand Acres (1991), in which she transplants Shakespeare’s play King Lear to a 1,000-acre Iowa farm headed by patriarch Larry (Lear in the play). The book was an international best-seller and was made into a film (1997) starring Jason Robards. Smiley was four months pregnant when she got the call from the Pulitzer committee. She says her reaction was, “‘Oh, isn’t that nice,’ enjoyed the flowers and the attention, and then kept on going with Moo.”

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®